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Legislative session

Photo by Rob Hainer
Photo by Rob Hainer

Long-term solutions needed for state’s General Fund

By Lenore Vickrey

Alabama’s lawmakers return to the state Capitol to begin their regular legislative session on March 3, and if news reports about the issues they will face sound somewhat familiar, you’re not imagining it.

Legislators were told in their orientation session in January that the state’s General Fund, which pays for prisons, Medicaid and public safety, faces a deficit of more than $256 million. Without a long-term answer, officials say that number will likely more than double in the coming years, up to $700 million.

In past sessions, lawmakers have not been willing to approve permanent solutions, instead preferring to borrow from the state’s Rainy Day Fund or cutting back on services. In recent weeks, Gov. Robert Bentley and various legislators have floated their own proposals to deal with the budget shortfall. Without giving specifics, Bentley told a gathering in Mobile that he’s looking at possible tax increases, which caught many off-guard. He’s also said gambling is not on the table, although during his campaign he’d mentioned a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians or a lottery as possible measures.

“The idea is to fix it (the General Fund deficit) once and for all,” says Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, “but it will be difficult to do. People like to talk about education and good roads and bridges. When you talk about Medicaid, and prisons and mental health, it’s not something they want to deal with.”

Clouse says legislators are waiting to hear what Bentley proposes in his budget the day after they convene. He speculated the governor could propose some broad-based revenue measures that would eliminate certain corporate or individual tax deductions such as FICA, increase the tax on tobacco products by 20 to 30 cents per pack, and erase the state tax exemption on defined retirement benefit plans.

One of the biggest issues lawmakers must deal with, Clouse says, is funding for the state’s prison system. The Alabama Prison Task Force released a list of proposals in January that would reduce the state’s inmate population by 4,500 prisoners and controls costs by reducing or stopping recidivism (repeating criminal behavior), having shorter sentences and hiring more parole and probation officers. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has said the task force’s proposals will be packaged as one bill for introduction in the session.

“These are designed to keep the feds off our back,” says Clouse. “They are hard decisions, but you can’t just throw away the key.”

The legislative session runs March 3-June 15. For information concerning legislation specific to your cooperative, contact Sean Strickler at sstrickler@areapower.com